Small-minded policy sets agenda for Big Society demands on advertising industry

No one could make it up. You’re a new government pledged to introduce sweeping efficiencies to the way Whitehall is run. One of your first moves is to seek out an experienced taskforce leader universally admired for his managerial track-record. Instead, you pick Ian Watmore – a technocrat whose most recent achievement has been an inglorious stint as ceo of the Football Association (itself probably the most dysfunctional governing body known to man). And, just to rub everyone’s nose in it – especially the many about to receive their P45s – you award him a prime minister’s salary of £142,500.

Watmore is in day-to-day charge of the Cabinet Office’s Efficiency and Reform Unit, and works closely with Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude and Treasury minister Danny Alexander to ensure there is a coordinated approach to tackling waste in government departments. This week it launched its plans for (inter alia) a new model government advertising programme that will involve  a “payment by results model, using government channels, and a US-style Ad Council”.

Perhaps because the wording is cryptic to the point of ambiguity, there is enough there to offend just about anyone who might be instrumental in making the policy succeed. Payment by results, for example, could well be code for no fee upfront to any agency involved in government marcoms; at very least it suggests arduous negotiation over how best to evaluate the tricky issue of behavioural change.

Then again, what exactly are “government channels”, and what sort of substitute are they for the commercial media they must to some extent supplant? The merest suggestion that the BBC is a “government channel” would provoke a furious debate over its independence. ITV wouldn’t be too chuffed either, at the prospect of all that lost revenue. But if not the BBC, then what else could this mysterious phrase encompass? Hospital and doctors’ waiting rooms, perhaps – although they’re not exactly the backbone of a national media strategy.

But the pièce de resistance is surely the “Ad Council” idea, which shows a frightening naivety about the very nature of advertising. If the Council is supposed to be a low-cost replacement vehicle for the Central Office of Information, then Watmore and his ministerial chums should think again. Something which was set up in 1941 in the heated aftermath of Pearl Harbour (highlight: the Smokey Bear campaign, devised to alert Americans to the dangers of the Japanese deliberately starting forest fires by shelling the US coastline) is hardly an appropriate model for today’s more sophisticated communications needs. The Ad Council lingers on, but as a charity not a government body – still less one that delivers government advertising.

Industry reaction to the proposals has been a barely suppressed anger. And for several good reasons. First, although the government is making great play of consulting the industry, the feeling is that this consultation is merely lip-service; the reality is an ideological blueprint being imposed from above, to which industry must accede. Secondly, there is exasperation at the idea of the advertising and communications business being expected to subsidise government messages; isn’t it doing enough already with such initiatives as Business4Life and “Why let good times go bad”? Thirdly, there is concern that the government’s Big Ask will suck the life out of genuine pro bono work for charities – performed by agencies already teetering on the edge of compassion-fatigue.

UPDATE 2/12/10. Someone seems to have persuaded Francis Maude that abolishing the COI and substituting a pro-bono US-style Ad Council would be a daft idea. At any rate, the rhetoric has been toned down. There’s no more talk of ‘abolition’, simply scaling down its operations and where possible devolving them to industry partnerships.

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